It has been revealing to watch the White House chase the NSA surveillance story. At first, when Edward Snowden’s revelations broke, White House officials sought to make the story about him. Snowden was a traitor and the issue was how quickly he could be brought to justice.
As the first wave of revelations about wholesale U.S. harvesting of data and phone records broke, they maintained this stance. The administration still focused on portraying itself as the victim of a betrayal. Again, White House spokespeople did not address the ethics of what the U.S. government had been doing, instead either diverting to the rationale for the scope of such wide-ranging surveillance operations or offering the excuse that running an intelligence system with more than half a million people naturally comes with operational security risks and, inevitably, there are contractors of dubious background like Snowden, who receive top-secret clearance.
When Snowden sought asylum, the United States made the story about the other governments that were collaborating with the young rogue fugitive. Tensions rose with Russia when it gave Snowden a temporary and then a longer-term home. Latin American nations that offered or considered offering Snowden asylum were framed as pariahs. We even collaborated with allies in Europe to ground the plane of Bolivia’s president in the hopes of nabbing the former contractor.
As the story then spread and countries like Brazil and Mexico were discovered to be the targets of espionage, the White House’s response publicly and in private to those governments was “everybody does it.” Again, no discussion was made of why we were spying on these friends or, if assertions of spying against commercial targets like Petrobras were true, what the rationale was for this kind of economic espionage. After all, the initial arguments were that this unprecedentedly massive program was to protect us from terrorists and other enemies. Was there a hidden Petrobras-al Qaida connection that we didn’t know about?
More recently, the White House’s reaction has revealed the double standard we have when it comes to surveilling our friends. If Brazil or Mexico is offended, that’s one thing, more easily shrugged off apparently. But when it was revealed that Germany, one of our closest allies, was also targeted (triggering a firestorm of anger in that country . . . compounded by anger in also-targeted France and Spain), we treated it differently. These particular complaints now warranted a different kind of response. In this instance, both public and private assurances were given to senior German officials by both National Security Adviser Susan Rice and later President Barack Obama. The newly adopted argument was that the president had no idea this was going on and that it was stopped.
This approach was subsequently challenged in stories in the German magazine Bild and in the Los Angeles Times, leading to more awkwardness for the White House. Now we weren’t just spying on the Germans and others — we were lying to them. And the White House was asking the American people to accept ignorance as its excuse. What a fine choice. Either the president didn’t know about programs he should have been aware of, or he knew and not only OK’d the overreach but then lied about it.
This astonishingly lame response — called “pathetic” by The New York Times editorial board, a group that is not seen as reflexively anti-Obama — was then compounded by an idea floated to The New York Times by the National Security Council: that the president was considering reforms that would ban eavesdropping on presidents and prime ministers of allies. Quite apart from raising the tough question of who our “real” allies are or defining who is fair game for spying, this policy tweak is not reform but spin. What if there were 20 allies who qualified? Does this mean we solve the NSA surveillance overreach problem by exempting a small, pre-selected group out of hundreds of millions from the data and phone-records eavesdropping and warehousing efforts of the U.S. government? It misses the point that there are worse things about this program than spying on the leaders of friendly nations.